Pope Benedict and the Great Condom Conundrum

As far as the Great Catholic Condom Conumdrum of 2010 goes (prompted by an excerpt of no more than 2 out of a nearly 200 page book-length interview God and the World), the myriad reactions among Catholic circles, seems to me largely (perhaps loosely) divided among two camps. But this is not simply a division between “progressives” and “conservatives”. Even those who would consider themselves orthodox, faithful adherents to Church teaching and admirers of Pope Benedict are divided.

On one side you have Fr. Martin Rhonheimer, Dr. Austen Ivereigh and even Fr. Lombardi himself. On the other side, you have Janet Smith, Fr. Joseph Fessio, and Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. Consider…

Position #1: In exceptional cases, where the sole intent is to prevent the transmission of disease (rather than to prevent pregnancy), the use of condoms might be regarded as commendable as “the first assumption of responsibility.” The Pope’s remarks have brought public attention to an “open question” (largely suppressed until now), about which the Church has yet to take a decisive stand.

The Pope’s words have inspired a renewed look at a controversial article by the Swiss theologian Fr. Martin Rhonheimer (priest of the Opus Dei Prelature who teaches at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome): “The truth about condoms” (The Tablet July 10, 2004):

The teaching of the Church is not about condoms or similar physical or chemical devices, but about marital love and the essentially marital meaning of human sexuality. It affirms that, if married people have a serious reason not to have children, they should modify their sexual behaviour by at least periodic abstinence from sexual acts. To avoid destroying both the unitive and the procreative meaning of sexual acts and therefore the fullness of mutual self-giving, they must not prevent the sexual act from being fertile while carrying on having sex.But what of promiscuous people, sexually active homosexuals, and prostitutes? What the Catholic Church teaches them is simply that they should not be promiscuous, but faithful to one single sexual partner; that prostitution is a behaviour which gravely violates human dignity, mainly the dignity of the woman, and therefore should not be engaged in; and that homosexuals, as all other people, are children of God and loved by him as everybody else is, but that they should live in continence like any other unmarried person.

But if they ignore this teaching, and are at risk from HIV, should they use condoms to prevent infection? The moral norm condemning contraception as intrinsically evil does not apply to these cases. Nor can there be church teaching about this; it would be simply nonsensical to establish moral norms for intrinsically immoral types of behaviour. Should the Church teach that a rapist must never use a condom because otherwise he would additionally to the sin of rape fail to respect mutual and complete personal self-giving and thus violate the Sixth Commandment? Of course not.

See also “The Pope and Martin Rhonheimer” (America “In All Things”), in which Dr. Ivereigh solicits Fr. Rhonheimer’s opinions on the present controversy and whether then-Cardinal Ratzinger was aware of his article in the Tablet.

In an earlier article, Dr. Ivereigh provides the background on the Pope and condoms (America “In All Things” November 21, 2010):

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor shortly before becoming Pope that “we can’t have cardinals disagreeing about this” and set up a commission of moral theologians to look into the question.

And there the issue lay, and no more was heard.

In 2008, while at a conference in Rome, I happened to meet a senior CDF official (I won’t give his name) and asked him what had happened to the commission. “Everyone knows that theologically there is a strong case for clarifying that teaching,” he told me, “but there’s just no way of doing it publicly without it being misunderstood.” Do you mean, I pressed him, that the Vatican feared the headlines that would result? “Exactly,” he said. …

In February this year, it came to light that the commission had been stood down, and that the report had “never got off the ground” in the word’s of the Health Council’s deputy, Bishop Redrado.

Ivereigh appears delighted that the Pope has opened the door to public discussion on the topic, “saluting him for his courage.” He seems particularly emphatic about beating this drum, announcing the dawning of “a new morality” in the latest edition of The Tablet.

In his clarification on remarks on AIDS and condoms Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, head of the Holy See Press Office, expressed the position that the use of a condom might be seen in a positive light:

… the pope considers an exceptional situation in which the exercise of sexuality respresents a true risk to the life of another. In that case, the pope does not morally justify the disordered exercise of sexuality, but holds that the use of a condom in order to diminish the threat of infection is “a first assumption of responsibility,” and “a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality,” rather than not using a condom and exposing the other person to a threat to their life.

In that sense, the reasoning of the pope certainly cannot be defined as a revolutionary shift. Numerous moral theologians and authoritative ecclesiastical personalities have sustained, and still sustain, similar positions. Nevertheless, it’s true that until now they have not been heard with such clarity from the mouth of the pope, even if it’s in a colloquial rather than magisterial form.

Benedict XVI therefore courageously gives us an important contribution of clarification and deepening on a question that has long been debated. It’s an original contribution, because on the one hand it remains faithful to moral principles and demonstrates lucidity in rejecting “faith in condoms” as an illusory path; on the other hand, it shows a comprehensive and far-sighted vision, attentive to discovering the small steps – even if they’re only initial and still confused – of a humanity often spiritually and culturally impoverished, towards a more human and responsible exercise of sexuality.

As was later reported, The Pope’s statement on condom use has been broadened to include heterosexuals and “transsexuals”, according to the Vatican’s media spokesman:

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters Tuesday that he asked the pope whether he intended his comments to apply only to men. Benedict replied that it really didn’t matter, the important thing was that the person took into consideration the life of another.

“I personally asked the pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine,” Lombardi said. “He told me no. The problem is this: … It’s the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship.”

“This is if you’re a man, a woman, or a transsexual. … The point is it’s a first step of taking responsibility, of avoiding passing a grave risk onto another,” Lombardi said.

Additional proponents of the “justified use of condoms in limited circumstances, as endorsed by Pope Benedict” view include:

The list could go on.

* * *

Position #2: The Pope’s remarks were confined to the epistemic — concerned only with the nature and scope of knowledge — and are not indicative of an actual change of position, either on the part of the Pope or the Church. Condom use even within this context remains morally unjustifiable, and simply cannot be recommended.

The Pope was engaging in speculation that a prostitute, using a condomn to ward off the transmission of disease, would in so doing take “a first step in the direction of moralization”. The Pope’s emphasis here is on the psychological: the alleged sign of altruistic concern for (and to curb the reckless endangerment of) the other, even in the engagement of immoral sexual activity, may be laudable as approaching moral awareness.

Some illustrations and analogies of other “first steps” have been offered:

Just as an alcoholic who begins reducing the number of times he binge drinks may be described as having made the “first step” towards sobriety. But binge drinking is still wrong. Binge drinking is never a “real or moral solution” because it is a disordered act. [Thomas Peters]Muggers are using steel pipes to attack people and the injuries are severe. Some muggers use padded pipes to reduce the injuries, while still disabling the victim enough for the mugging. The Pope says that the intention of reducing injury (in the act of mugging) could be a first step toward greater moral responsibility. This would not justify the following headlines: “Pope Approves Padded Pipes for Mugging” “Pope Says Use of Padded Pipes Justified in Some Circumstances”, Pope Permits Use of Padded Pipes in Some Cases”. [Fr. Joseph Fessio – Reuters 11/23/10]

Nonetheless, the Pope has clearly stated that condoms are neither a “real or moral” solution — as Fr. Fessio points out,

a solution which is not “moral” cannot be “justified”. That is a contradiction and would mean that something in itself morally evil could be “justified” to achieve a good end. Note: the concept of the “lesser evil” is inapplicable here. One may tolerate a lesser evil; one cannot do something which is a lesser evil.

Dr. Steven A. Long, professor of theology at Ave Maria University, has weighed in on the matter in a lengthy but must-read article. He is criticizing the position (assumed to be the Pope’s) “that the disordered sexual act of sodomy is morally bad, but condom use, as something incipiently responsible and moral, is nonetheless good.

According to Steven, this is precisely what the Pope is NOT saying.” Condom use is morally, even gravely evil, insofar as it is “wholly predicated upon, and willed as a function of, the intention of sodomy, and condom used participates the species of the sodomitic act.”

What, then, of the papal language? Can a gravely evil act really be such that “there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement towards a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality”? Certainly in the epistemic order, a person who is morally coarse and living sinfully, may in beginning to reflect on the consequences of his action for others and beginning to take responsibility for these, move in such a way that were it to continue he would eventually enter into genuinely moral considerations. If this is what the Pope means, then it is surely defensible, although the language even so seems somewhat rhetorically over-freighted: simply doing an evil act in a way that prevents infection does not necessarily suggest anything other than that the homosexual prostitute does not wish his customer to die, which frankly could be from venal or vicious motives; and if it is from a better motive, the act is still similar to a strangler who gives all his victims the opportunity to make a good act of contrition, and whom he calms and kills in as gentle a fashion as possible: all of which hardly seems to count as “a first step in a movement towards a different way, a more human way” of living. The Church is not in the business of endorsing grave evils when they are “lesser”–because grave moral evil may never rightly be done by anyone. The rhetoric of “first step” towards “a more human” sexuality makes the epistemic motion seem more proximate to the good of a more human sexuality than in fact it is. The “first step” is, in the epistemic order, toward a moral awareness generally speaking, which must be developed and enriched far more in order to constitute any specific movement in the practical moral order toward a “more human” sexuality.

Nonetheless one must give due credit to the “can” of the Pope’s formulation–something that expresses raw possibility. And it is true that those who do move from moral evil to moral good, must epistemically at some point begin to be aware of their responsibility, and such a beginning might be found in someone who before had cavalierly exposed others to infection whilst sodomizing, who then tries to minimize the occasion for giving infection. But “first step”? Normally the first step toward a purpose partakes of the genus of that purpose. If the end is genuinely moral, then the use of the condom is not a “first step” any more than the gentler strangler is taking a first step toward a moral way of living and honoring the good of life. The “first step” of the Pope’s example must be understood as nakedly epistemic, not in the least moral, but with the possibility that it could lead at some point to the genuinely moral. All the efforts to speak of the instance to which the pope refers as an exceptional case or circumstance for which the Holy Father has distilled the right moral theological understanding seems thus utterly wrong, because the Pope is not saying that condom use is morally good.

The same judgement stands in the case of Federico Lombardi’s announcement that the Pope’s words are applicable to heterosexual activity:

Here, of course, there is a contraceptive species added to the act; and this makes all the clearer why the Pope’s point is directly epistemic and only remotely moral. It also shows how dangerous it is to start speaking of these as “exceptional” situations and promulgating dubious moral judgments of them. Nonetheless, the same point obtains: epistemically, a female prostitute too might become more aware of consequences to others and responsibility, which followed all the way out lead toward moral modes of engagement. But it alters nothing of the moral evil that constitutes the acts being performed. To treat the lesser evil as a moral good, to speak of it in terms of an “exceptional situation” in which somehow because of its epistemic implications for possible moral consciousness it is therefore good, is a great mistake. This is a mistake toward which Lombardi’s comments seem to verge.

For other articles taking this position see:

  • 11/20/10: Pope Benedict on condoms in “Light of the World”, by Dr. Janet Smith (Catholic World Report Web Exclusive):

    Would it be proper to conclude that the Holy Father would support the distribution of condoms to male prostitutes? Nothing he says here indicates that he would. … Is Pope Benedict indicating that heterosexuals who have HIV could reduce the wrongness of their acts by using condoms? No. In his second answer he says that the Church does not find condoms to be a “real or moral solution.” That means the Church does not find condoms either to be moral or an effective way of fighting the transmission of HIV.

  • “What the Pope Really Meant” Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the court of final appeal at the Vatican:

    He’s simply making the comment that if a person who is given to prostitution at least considers using a condom to prevent giving the disease to another person — even though the effectiveness of this is very questionable — this could be a sign of someone who is having a certain moral awakening. But in no way does it mean that prostitution is morally acceptable, nor does it mean that the use of condoms is morally acceptable.

* * *
Obviously, the much cited words of the Pope should be taken in the context of the Q-&-A that preceded it, on the question of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Here the Pope clearly states: “we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms”; that “the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality”, and that the condom “it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection” and later, that even in such circumstances it can neither be regarded as a “real or moral solution.”

But all of this is getting lost in the mix, buried by those with the desire to read within the Pope’s remarks a qualified affirmation of condom use. And so, to agree with Phil Lawler:

Today, what the world thinks Pope Benedict said is almost exactly the opposite of what he clearly intended.

In Chapter 11 of his new book, Light of the World, Pope Benedict mounts a strong defense of his argument that condom use is not the appropriate means of fighting the AIDS epidemic.

This week, millions of people received the impression that the Pope made precisely the opposite argument …

More to explorer


  1. I’ve stated my views in another comment thread… while the Church’s teaching on condoms isn’t as absolute as we often think, Benedict wasn’t addressing that question in this context.

    What I really hope, though, is that the controversy prompts people to actually buy the book and read it… I got my copy Wednesday night and am nearly done, and it really is a fantastic read. It’s vintage Ratzinger/Benedict… brilliant, insightful, and spiritually edifying. And when you read the entire book, the fact that this controversy is really a miniscule part of the text is even more apparent.

    So: tolle, lege.

  2. I don’t think that Rhonheimer is saying anything that is at odds with what Long says. The former is simply saying that the Church is not in the business of counselling people how to “sin prudently”. The latter is giving a more penetrating analysis, however, in showing that the good intention to take responsibility is completely accidental to the act. No conflict here.

  3. I’m curious what you make of the reasoning of Dr. Steven A. Long. I do think this (real? apparent) conflict of views among those explaining what the Pope meant is going to create a lot of problems.

    Even those “going to the text” are going to walk away w/ dueling convictions as to whether condom use is acceptable in such circumstances. The emphasis on the Pope’s words seems to be placed on either “NOT a real or moral solution” or “the first step in taking responsibility.”

    The lack of uniformity among those at the top is disconcerting.

    As far as your wish that people won’t let this impede their picking up the book and reading the whole thing, I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve been compiling non “condom-controversy” related reviews and discussions of the book here.

  4. I think your breakdown is more or less accurate, though my inclination to take option #1, does not mean I don’t see some value in option #2. Could this question give some clarity:

    May a definitively infertile (say, post-hysterectomy) married, heterosexual, HIV-discordant couple use a condom that was known to be 100% effective?

    I think that they could. In this sense, I reject the idea that condoms are intrinsically evil. Nevertheless, I do no advocate their use because this situation (especially the last qualifier) does not exist in the concrete.

    What I do hold is that we do not need to feel we are somehow trangressing Catholic ethics if we hope that those we know to be engaging in dangerous sexual activity are protected from infection. We can hope this, if the infection reducing aspect of condoms is not itself evil (#1), by hoping that those engaging in such acts at the very least care for something more than themselves (#2).

  5. Charles,
    I agree. Though I think Chris is right in showing that there have basically been two kinds of responses from orthodox Catholics and he catalogues them fairly accurately.

  6. Chris,

    For the most part, I agree with Steve Long, particularly in that I think he’s right about this being an epistemic issue primarily.

    Again, though… while with Long, I disagree with Rhonheimer et al., I think it important to recognize that at least at this point their position with regard to condoms is within the bounds of orthodoxy. I think they misread Benedict to be in agreement with them, but that doesn’t mean that their position on condoms is heterodox.

    At this point I think it more important to correct their misreading of Benedict than engage them on the issue of condoms… that can wait for another day.

    Incidentally, I finished the book earlier today… my opinion as indicated in my comment above stands: it’s a fantastic read, and a book I’d heartily recommend to give to anyone interested in learning more about Catholicism, whether they be Catholic or otherwise.

  7. I agree with Chris Burgwald that Benedict’s actual statements are best understood as limited to the “epistemic” sense of moral awakening that may, or may not, issue finally in a legitimately real and moral solution. So I agree with Steve Long on this score.

    However, Long’s statement that condom use is “wholly predicated upon, and willed as a function of, the intention of sodomy, and condom used participates the species of the sodomitic act,” is, on my understanding, not reflective of settled magisterial teaching but of Long’s own application of natural law to the issue of condoms. Here is where Long and Fr. Rhonheimer might disagree: Fr. Rhonheimer has noted, correctly, that the magisterium has *not yet* definitively decided upon the hypothetical case referenced by Brett in this thread, and to that extent at least Long’s claim that condom use is *intrinsically* sodomitical is open to question.

    Fr. Rhonheimer also has noted, again and again, that he will have no trouble assenting to whatever the Magisterium decides in this case; he should not be thought of as agitating for a “change” in the Church’s position here but rather as noting, correctly, that moral theologians can legitimately differ on the question at hand–i.e. whether *in every instance* the use of a condom is intrinsically sodomitical.

    This issue is not, I repeat, one whose discussion is necessitated by the Pope’s comments.

  8. WJ,
    I am having a difficult time remembering the last time I disagreed with you. Think you could write my dissertation for me?

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: